WASHINGTON -- "We'll get back to you on that." The phrase is often heard in Washington when reporters ask subject-matter experts for the meaning of an acronym or buzz word. The inside-the-beltway crowd can use short-hand alpha-numeric-speak so often they forget the actual name of a thing, and the letters of a program or weapon or concept can become far more recognizable than the real name.
But now, saying that a term can mean different things to different people -- often in the same discussion -- the chief of naval operations (CNO) is banning one of the Pentagon's favorite acronyms.
"We're going to scale down the mention of A2AD," Adm. John Richardson said Monday, referring to the acronym for anti-access area denial, a warfighting approach with, he said, a variety of definitions.
"It's a term bandied about pretty freely and lacks the precise definition it probably would benefit from, and that ambiguity sends a variety of signals," Richardson said. "Specifics matter."
Speaking to a Washington audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies – more widely known as CSIS -- Richardson said the Navy would "to refrain from using the term A2AD as a stand-alone acronym. We owe it to ourselves to be better than that."
Richardson, a nuclear-trained officer known for precise thinking – he once led Naval Nuclear Reactors, more widely known simply as NR -- ticked off several reasons why A2AD is an inadequate term.
"The concept is not anything new – the history of warfare is all about adversaries seeking to one-up each other," he said. Use of the word "denial," he added, "is too often taken as a fait accompli when I fact it really describes an aspiration. The reality is far more complex."
The CNO, as he's often referred to, complained that A2AD "is far too inherently oriented to the defense," when in reality it describes both offense and defense.
Richardson also complained that "the A2AD threat is already pretty well understood, but to my mind the more vexing challenges are right around the corner." He cited more powerful enemy missiles and improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
"These systems are spreading, but the essential military problem they represent is largely the same," Richardson said. "It doesn't mean they don't present a challenge, but if we fixate on [the term] we could miss the boat that's just around the corner."
The term A2AD grew in popularity in the early 2000s as a way to describe the problem of attacking an enemy determined to fight back. A seemingly endless number of pamphlets, books, doctoral papers, speeches and power point presentations have followed offering a variety of explanations. Those descriptions in turn are often open to interpretation, with many viewed as targeting the growing military power of China and Russia.
But CNO did not offer a handy A2AD alternative.
"So what do we say instead? I'm sorry, I'm not going to propose substituting one acronym for another," Richardson said. "But a one-size-fits-all description creates confusion, not clarity. Instead we'll talk in specifics about our strategies and capabilities."
Ironically, some in the audience observed, the move comes only days after Richardson announced the elimination of the centuries-old naval tradition of referring to enlisted sailors by their ratings, or job titles. The specificity of referring to sailors as "operations specialists" or "gas turbine system technicians - electrical" is being replaced by more generic terms such as sailor or petty officer.